Jay Turner of Laguna Pest Control shares his experiences and tips on how to determine the culprit behind cases of supposed ‘biting’ insects. 

As pest managers, it’s only a matter of time before we get the inevitable “Something’s biting me!” phone call.

For newcomers to the industry, calls like this can be a bit overwhelming – what exactly needs treating? Personally, I love these jobs. I get the chance to use my experience and knowledge as a pest manager to determine what’s causing the ‘biting’, as well as welcoming a new and appreciative client.

These cases also mean we get to play detective as we try and profile the likely perpetrator. And as any good detective, the key is to not jump to conclusions or make assumptions. Instead, it’s a process of elimination. I like to use a step-by-step process when I start any job. Below, I’ve shared a guide on how I tackle these situations.

Step 1: Ask lots of questions!

Start asking questions as soon as you get the call and continue asking when you get on site. I strongly recommend the bite victim be on site when you assess. Questions should include what part of the body was bitten, what time of the day does it happen, and is there somewhere in the house they get bitten more often? Other questions like if they sleep with the windows open, are there pets onsite or birds in the roof can also help your investigation.

The area of the body being bitten can also be significant in establishing what’s causing the bites or could help you determine whether they could in fact be an irritation rather than bites. Fleas and sand flies tend to bite around the lower extremities such as the ankles, while bed bugs bite around the mid-body torso, and mozzies and midges attack limbs and extremities that are left exposed from clothing and bedding.

The time of day can also help profile the culprit. Midges and mozzies typically bite in the evenings, bed bugs bite in the middle of the night and fleas don’t give a rat’s ass!

The area of the house where they get bitten most can also help narrow down the search. The bedroom obviously leans towards bed bugs, whereas outside areas suggest mozzies or midges. The client might sleep with their windows open and even if they have window screens, midges can still get through.

Having pets onsite or even birds nesting in the roof obviously opens up the possibility of fleas or bird mites as a possible culprit.

And they might not end up being bites at all. Plants, caterpillars, mites, chemical reactions, heat rashes, static electricity and of course delusional parasitosis (which I’ll talk about later), can all cause bite-like symptoms but are not actual bites.

Step 2: The inspection

By this stage, you’re hopefully getting an inkling as to what’s causing the problem, but physical evidence is what you’re after. Evidence of bed bug activity is typically easy to find. Faecal spotting, egg cases and moults are all tell-tale signs that bed bugs leave behind. Bird nesting material in the roof can also be a dead giveaway. A quick crawl through the subfloor will have fleas crawling up your arms if they are present. And a dusty house could suggest dust mites. One trick I like to use when I begin an inspection is to take my shoes and socks off. If they’re there, a flea crawling up your bare foot is hard to miss, and if I’m still in doubt, I’ll sit on carpeted floor with my bare legs and feet and move around. Fleas can’t resist a warm-blooded mammal making lots of vibrations.

If you’re not sure whether there are fleas present, here’s one way to find out!

Step 3: Determine the culprit

Once you’ve completed the first two steps, hopefully you’ve narrowed down the culprit, and you can now progress to a treatment plan. However, if you are still hitting a wall and there is no evidence of the likely candidates, it’s potentially time to break out the glue boards and explore the possibility that its psychological. Glue boards that come up empty can physically reassure a client that there is nothing there. And if it is psychological, you need to approach this conclusion with a fair degree of tact and diplomacy.

Delusional parasitosis is a real condition, but not one we are qualified to diagnose. The condition is the mistaken belief that parasites have infested the body. People with delusional parasitosis have an unshakable, false belief that they are infested with insects, worms, mites, lice, fleas, or other organisms. If you strongly suspect delusional parasitosis, this is outside our area of expertise. The best solution is to acknowledge you are unable to determine the cause of the bites and suggest they go to their medical practitioner to get the bites examined.

Step 4: The treatment

I am a strong believer in not treating unless I have strong evidence of what I’m treating for. Treating simply for the sake of treating in an attempt to give the client some peace of mind, is only asking for trouble. So, if we have identified the culprit, we can formulate a treatment plan that best suits that pest.

And if we haven’t, and as much as it pains us to admit, we have to accept the fact that we can’t fix everything but can hopefully refer them to someone who can. But rest assured, we have done our part and ruled out the likely candidates.

So, as much as some of us cringe when we get these calls, as professionals, we have an obligation to respond and not simply handball. And it’s how we respond that sorts out the true professionals amongst us.